Pretoria SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Mafi Mgobozi said soldiers would remain at the SABC buildings in Joburg and Durban until they were told to withdraw by President Cyril Ramaphosa, their commander in chief.
“When the violence started, we started deploying our soldiers to national key points. The SABC was one of them,” Mgobozi said.
“We deployed our soldiers to most of the SABC stations. This deployment will continue until we receive instruction from the commander in chief that our soldiers must start withdrawing from the areas where they are.”
The SANDF was deployed to the SABC’s Auckland Park, Joburg building, as well as to its Durban offices following the outbreak of civil unrest that rocked KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last month.
Last week, the SABC board decided to remove a spying clause in the contracts of workers that would allow it to have access to the private communications of staff.
Mgobozi said it was worrisome that so much attention was given only to the SABC when other national key points were also being monitored following the unrest.
“There is the army everywhere. Even at our court there is the army’s presence,” he said.
Responding to questions from the Pretoria News, Presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seale said: “This is an operational matter and only the SANDF may comment about it.”
However, the Communications Workers Union called for the immediate withdrawal of the soldiers from the public broadcaster, saying they were seen as curtailing media freedom.
The union’s secretary Aubrey Tshabalala said it was of concern to see soldiers there. “This decision must be reversed completely. If they do not do that then we will do what we did last week and approach the portfolio committee. The (other) thing that we need to see, even if they do not withdraw the decision, is for the SABC to come back to the table and explain to us the decision it has taken.
“This will enable us to go back to the workforce and explain why they were there in the first place; whether we agree with it or not, we need an explanation.”
The Broadcasting, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union meanwhile challenged the public broadcaster and the government to explain why the army had to enter the building without police, if they were there to protect the offices.
“We are concerned that the SANDF went into the building without the police, or why they were there in the first place,” said union president Hannes du Buisson.
“Although the government is entitled to protect its national key points, there is no need for the army to be in the newsroom. The SABC initially denied the presence of the army.
“We say if they are there to protect the building, then they must remain outside,” Du Buisson said.
In a turn of events, SABC board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini admitted yesterday that the army had been spotted in some of the newsrooms.
To this, Du Buisson replied: “Their presence is totally out of place, unwarranted and unjustified. This could easily create the impression that the government or the SANDF is watching over journalists.
“You don’t have to say anything, your mere presence there is totally out of place, totally unwarranted, unjustified. Being in the public broadcaster building armed with rifles is totally out of place. All of that has certainly created the impression that we are not free, we are not independent, we are watched by Big Brother.”
One staff member said the presence of the army on the perimeters of the SABC headquarters had left employees divided.
Some welcomed the move after being intimidated by looters during coverage of the July unrest; others said they were not intimidated.
Lobby group Right2Know said the deployment would not only make SABC journalists feel threatened, but also members of the public because they would always feel as though they were being watched.
However, SABC group executive of corporate affairs and marketing, Gugu Ntuli, said the move was made to protect the public broadcaster’s premises and staff because of the recent unrest.
“The SABC premises are national key points. The SABC, therefore, refutes, with the necessary contempt, the misleading and malicious allegations that there is an ulterior motive for the presence of the SANDF at its premises,” Ntuli said.
“In the exercise of their responsibilities, the members of the SANDF engage with the SABC’s internal security to familiarise themselves with some internal security processes and national key point activities, including news.”